Africa has at least fifteen presidents who have served longer than a decade in office, and out of the top ten longest-serving leaders globally, African countries take up six slots.
Still, the stereotype of the long-serving African despot who will do anything to cling to office is not entirely true; the continent has seen at least 19 peaceful transitions involving an incumbent president losing an election, and vacating office peacefully - the number rises to 25 once you factor in various transitional arrangements.
However, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with most countries south of the Sahara having a median age in the twenties.
To get a “relative” picture of how long a president has been in power, Mail & Guardian Africa compared the length of its 15 longest-serving leaders, with the percentage of the population in that country born after the president assumed power.
The data on population was obtained from population.io, an interactive population portal that allows you to determine your age relative to everyone else in the world, and to people in your country.
Our comparison includes leaders who served as transitional leaders before being elected by popular vote - for example Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who assumed office in 2000 under a transitional regime, before being elected as president in 2003.
The same goes for Isaias Afwerki, who assumed power in 1991 with the victory of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), before the country officially became independent in 1993.
Under this picture, the “relative” presidential term has been longest in Angola, where 85% of the population was born after Jose Eduardo dos Santos came into power on 10th September 1979.
In second place is Robert Mugabe; 83% of Zimbabweans today were born under a Mugabe presidency.
In third place is Yoweri Museveni, where 79% of the population was born with Museveni as president. Even though Cameroon’s Paul Biya has served longer than Museveni in absolute terms - Biya has been head of state since 1982 - Uganda has a younger population than Cameroon does, so Museveni beats Biya in relative terms.
It’s the same case for Equatorial Guinea: Teodoro Nguema Obiang is Africa’s longest-serving in absolute terms, having been in power since August 3, 1979, but relative to his country’s age, he is in fourth place: 76% of the population has only known an Obiang presidency.
Djibouti’s Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (1999) has been in power longer than Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (2000) or DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila (2001), but Rwanda and DR Congo have much younger populations than Djibouti.
It means that 46% of Congolese and 44% of Rwandans, were born with their current president in power, compared to 37% of Djiboutians.
And Pierre Nkurunziza, who was recently sworn into a controversial third term, has been in power longer than Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika in relative terms - 35% of Burundi’s population was born after Nkurunziza assumed office on August 26, 2005, whereas in Algeria’s case, it’s 31% under a Bouteflika presidency.
Why does any of this matter? Because incumbents are often able to shape many of their country’s citizen’s attitudes about democracy, leadership, and integrity, and where a leader is corrupt or repressive, it’s likely to affect the attitude of the vast populations who knew them as their only leader in future.